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Family/Youth Last Updated: May 19th, 2010 - 14:29:33


The Myth of Black Male Privilege?
By Mark Anthony Neal--SeeingBlack.com Contributing Editor
Mar 31, 2010, 12:00

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The Black family cast of the 70's television show "Good Times"
The question of Black Male Privilege has again resurfaced, seemingly as a counter narrative to annual celebrations of Women’s History Month. Though likely coincidental, the current debate about Black Male Privilege was inspired by a recent lecture by R. L’Heureux Lewis at the Founder’s Day Symposium at his alma mater, Morehouse College. Lewis offered a more streamlined version of his address to NPR’s Michael Martin describing Black Male Privilege as “built-in and often overlooked systematic advantages that center the experience and the concerns of Black males while minimizing the power that Black males hold.”


This is not a new conversation. In his book Whose Gonna Take the Weight? (2003), Kevin Powell’s critiques of Black male sexism, misogyny and violence against Black women are largely informed by his realizations of his own gender privilege as a Black man. As I wrote in New Black Man (2005), "just because Black men are under siege, in White America, doesn’t mean they don’t exhibit behaviors that do real damage to others, particularly within Black communities. What many [folk] want to do is excuse the behavior of Black men because of the extenuating circumstances under which Black manhood is lived in our society." In his study of African-American literature, David Ikard highlights the ways that the fiction of Toni Morrison, for example, reveals "the extent to which black men exploit their gender privilege over black women," often to their own detriment. Indeed, Lewis’s own formulation of Black Male Privilege is deeply indebted to Jewel Woods’s exhaustive and widely circulated "The Black Male Privileges Checklist".


Nevertheless that idea that Black men possess any privilege, is contested. As one commentator on Facebook argued, "the vast majority of African men in America do not exercise ANY privilege over Black women. Black women control THEIR households, and THEIR churches, and refuse to relinquish any of the control in either, clearly exercising their prerogative in both. If a man cannot exercise privilege in the larger society, or in his own home, where would he exercise real privilege and prerogative anywhere? This concept applies to such a very small coterie of Black men that its impact is not even worth discussing."


In his response to Lewis, Lester Spence half jokes, "How the hell can Black men have privilege if there are more of them in jail than any other population, fewer in school than damn near any other population, and work as the poster child that drives Black and non-Black political attitudes rightward?” But Spence goes on to offer a recalibration of the debate acknowledging that "The very fact that the "Black male crisis" is synonymous with the "Black crisis" is a testimony to the way that Black male privilege constructs what we think of as "Black politics," what we think of as important enough to convene symposiums, to have boycotts and marches, to urge legislation for."


Push back against the idea of Black Male Privilege is not surprising, particularly in the current economic environment. High rates of unemployment and other economic indices depict the lives of working class and working poor Black men as nothing short of dire; the realities of Black male incarceration (often premised on hustling) only exacerbate the situation. Indeed charging Black men with any kind of gender privilege seems dangerously close to blaming the victim for their conditions. But the height of gender privilege is the refusal or inability to recognize, despite your predicament, that there are others in the Black community who are struggling and suffering just as much as you are--and in the context domestic and sexual violence, often at the very hands of the very Black men who are decrying their lack of privilege.


In terms of structural realities, Insight: The Center for Community Economic Development’s recent report, "Lifting As We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America’s Future" offers concrete data on the ways that gender privilege manifest itself in the accumulation of wealth on a daily basis. While many think of wealth as in issue that only applies to elites, Insight describes wealth as fundamental to economic security and stability. There has been much attention to the study, written by researcher Mariko Chang, which suggests that single Black women have a median wealth of $100, compared to single White women who have a median wealth of over $41,000. To be sure, single Black men do not fair much better in comparison to their White male counterparts, but their median wealth of $7,900 is still dramatically greater than that of single Black women.\
Indeed, a few thousand dollars in savings can help stave off the immediate crisis of joblessness, while $100 might get you a week’s worth of groceries.


Perhaps more telling is the comparison between single Black women and men with children. According to the Insight report, the median wealth for single black male fathers is $26,000, while for single black women that amount is still only $100. More alarming is that when we take into account the parents of young children—those under the age of 18—the median wealth of single Black mothers is $0. Even under those conditions black men fare significantly better than their Black women peers, with median wealth just short of $11,000. It should be noted that across the board, single mothers are disadvantaged in comparison to men, regardless of race. These numbers, in particular, highlight one of the ways that gender privilege functions in our society. Whereas single fathers often have access to greater resources—financial, professional and even emotional—for performing what society views as exceptional parenting behavior, single mothers face a world in which the resources they need are often under siege by fiscal and social conservatives who often depict such women—particularly women of color—as lazy, over-sexed and slovenly.

Even the default argument, offered by some Black men, that suggest that Black women are more present in the professional workforce, doesn’t hold up in the Insight report. Though Black women outnumber Black men in professional and managerial positions (less than one-percent in the latter case), those numbers are undercut by an across the board income gap where Black women make about 87% of what Black men do. But as the Insight report cautions, “Earnings are no doubt important for building wealth, but they are converted into wealth at a much faster pace if they are linked with the wealth escalator—fringe benefits, favorable tax codes, and valuable government benefits—that are tied to employment, income and marital status” and women of color, “do not benefit from the wealth escalator to the same extent as men or white women.” As the report explains, “women of color experience a pay gap that is affected not just by the pay gap between men and women, but also between whites and minorities.”


Gender privilege is no myth and despite the structural crisis that Black men face in American society, they often function with significantly more advantages than Black women. The quicker Black men come to terms with this reality and let go of their privileged victim status, the quicker Black men and women can talk about strategies to increase the wealth and stability of all within our communities.


Mark Anthony Neal is author of several books on music and popular culture, including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy, which will be published in 2011 by New York University Press and The TNI-Mixtape which will be available on-line for free download later this year. Neal is a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

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